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The End of Conspiracy Theories for a While?

12/04/2012 09:39 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2013

There is a shorthand phrase in media circles for the case where a moderately successful TV show finally wears out its core plot concept and, in an effort to reboot its ratings, takes things to such a preposterous extreme that instead it loses all credibility (and viewers). It's called "jumping the shark" after an episode that involved just such a scene in a vain attempt to recapture relevance.

It is not unusual to see the same phenomenon at work in the weeks leading up to and then immediately following an electoral defeat, especially one that's unexpected by its champions. And when you add in the Petraeus drama, "He's My General...No, He's My General" script, one can see that shark jumping threatens to become an Olympic sport. But the good news is that once it gets to that stage, we've got a reasonable chance that the whole show will be cancelled in due course due to low ratings.

The games really began just before the Republican Convention, when Rush Limbaugh revealed his suspicions that the U.S. Weather Bureau had faked the range of paths of an approaching hurricane to put the Tampa Convention site within the storm's "cone of uncertainty" and thus scare the party into knocking a day off the schedule (which they did). Of course, while the worst weather did veer farther to the west, Tampa had a pretty bad day and night and the Convention went on to conclusion without incident (or much excitement).

Then came the renewed Trump allegations about the President Obama's birthplace, with The Donald posting a $5 million charitable gift award to the president if he would just provide his school applications so we could all see where the president said he was born when he left high school. All this did was add the academic admissions offices of several universities around 1980 to the original conspiracy to falsify Obama's birth announcement back in 1961 by a broad and generally unrelated collection of doctors, nurses, State of Hawaii officials, various family members, at least two newspapers and various other individuals in Asia, America and Kenya, all to make sure the newborn with the Muslim name would be eligible for the U.S. presidency nearly five decades later. (Now we know what the phrase "trumped up" is intended to mean!)

The debates produced a few new conspiracy theories involving the debate moderators: one that Jim Lehrer slept through his assignment and allowed Romney to run roughshod over the president; another that Martha Radatz had some nerve to bet at least as well prepared and knowledgeable as Biden, and especially Ryan, who could not quite get away with his Randian turns on the Truth; and finally that Candy Crowley was a secret member of team Obama when she backed up the president's transcript quote about "acts of terror" the day after Benghazi. And yet the media and the moderators survived the debates better than the candidates.

Then just before Ohio started its early voting came the Romney commercial claiming a conspiracy among the Italians and the unions to ship Jeep production from that fair state to Red China (where it had been going in before anyway, and despite the fact that Chrysler was in fact ramping up Jeep production in Ohio). When everyone concerned with Jeep denied the allegations, the campaign responded "that's our story and we're sticking to it''... and lost the state by 2 percent.

And of course it all came to a final head with RushBaugh again, with his allegation of a vast conspiracy of election polling firms who were systematically over-sampling the projected democratic turnout in an effort to discourage and thus "suppress" the Republican vote (except, of course, for the one or two pollsters that showed Romney winning and the Republicans even in turnout). This charge of course proved to be at worst a conspiracy of correctness, as the election actually turned out pretty close to the polls Limbaugh trashed.

Limbaugh's fellow theorist, Karl Rove, nonetheless picked up the "voter suppression" charge a couple of days after he also called out -- on live TV -- a conspiracy of networks, including his own Fox, to prematurely call the election of Obama and thus suppress the conclusion of vote counting in Ohio. Fox, of course, denied that it had itself "jumped the shark" into Team Obama: now that would have been real news!

Limbaugh has also fanned the flames of conspiracy involving the State Department, the FBI, the CIA and the White House and the UN ambassador to suppress the truth about the terrorist roots of the assault on our mission in Benghazi. The conjoined senatorial twins McCain and Graham (conspicuously not joined by their third twin Sen. Lieberman) jumped on the pile.

Others like Charles Krauthammer piled on with allegations that Obama had used the FBI's affair investigation to hold Petraeus to the company line on Benghazi until after the election -- a conspiracy that strangely would have to take form earlier in the summer, even before Benghazi occurred.

Now it turns out that intelligence officials did edit out classified suspicions about specific terrorist groupings and associations from Ambassador Rice's TV script to safeguard CIA and FBI efforts to trace the actual bad guys. (They also thought there was no real difference between the words "extremist," which they did allow to be used, and "terrorist.")

There are important investigations underway regarding Benghazi that will get to the truly important issues as to why our mission was so unprepared and unprotected in the critical days and hours, but these seem not to involve conspiracies apart from incompetence and highly theoretical and bureaucratized approaches to sensitive issues in the field that require far more pragmatic and high-level judgments.

Now two weeks after the election we hear from Romney and Limbaugh both allege a vast conspiracy of "takers" who voted fro Obama because of the "free" goodies the president delivered -- a reflection of the 47 percent conspiracy the Romney had alleged earlier of the non-taxpayer beneficiaries of "government handouts" -- presumably the Social Security benefits those "takers" had actually paid for, and the veterans benefits and tax-free income our military actually earned by their service, or the food stamps and school lunches and earned income tax credits that hundreds of Republican politicians have voted for (one supposes as fellow conspirators).

Never mind that the alleged non-taxpayers actually have been paying payroll, sales and gasoline and other excise taxes all along. And never mind that women were never demanding "free" birth control; they simply wanted to be able to buy (or earn at their workplace) insurance policies that provide such prescriptions without co-pays. Strange how the free-market folks confuse buying something with getting it free. But facts never stand in the way of a self-serving conspiracy theory.

Maybe the best way to sum this all up is that the utter failure (not to mention the sheer fantasy) of these conspiracy theories to hold true (or even hold water) may finally be leading to a little less credibility for their proponents, or a little less media attention from their cable TV megaphones. Or maybe we should just start countering with conspiracies from the other side -- did you know that the owner of Rush Limbaugh's radio broadcast EIB network is... Bain?!